“Could we be the No. 1 seed in the league? Probably, without all the injuries. But we’ve had a ton of them. I think we’ve had four or five guys miss 20-plus games,” Nurse said. “As long as we get them back when we need them, have our team at full strength, or as full strength as we get it, good. And if for some reason we don’t? Man, we’ve played enough games without it full strength, so we oughta be able to go then, too.”
Toronto played to a 10-point lead by halftime. Westbrook – who had 42 points and 11 rebounds against the Raps earlier in the week – was held to just seven points by the half on 3-of-10 shooting.
Even with all-stars such as Westbrook, George and Leonard in the game, it was Siakam doing the most dazzling. Fresh off a 33-point, 13-rebound performance Wednesday, Siakam had some all-star-like moments on his own in this one. He made a lightning-quick interception of a pass between George and Westbrook, and then eluded Schroder with long strokes to make good on a craft layup. At one point, when Westbrook appeared to cleanly defend Siakam, it was the OKC star who ended up with the foul.
Yet despite holding a lead as big as 13 points, the Raps let the Thunder get back into the game with one sloppy quarter – just as they had two nights earlier in OKC. It was as though Westbrook finally got fed up.
“We’ve been seeing that, slowly,” Fred VanVleet said of his teammate. “The urgency has been creeping up, a little more fire.”
Paul George scored 28 points, while Russell Westbrook had 18 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds, and Dennis Schroder chipped in with 26 for the Thunder (43-30), who snapped a four-game losing streak.
Pascal Siakam had 25 points for the Raptors (51-22), who were missing all-star guard Kyle Lowry. Danny Green had six three-pointers and 19 points, while Serge Ibaka scored 11, and Norm Powell grabbed 11 rebound for the Raptors (51-22).
Will the Raptors see still another gear from Leonard from the ball is tossed up for the post-season?
“That’s what we hope,” said Green, who played with Leonard in San Antonio. “Obviously he has played at a high level in previous years before this year and in the playoffs and we hope he can reach that level or get back to that level and play at that level in the playoffs for us.
“We hope that everyone else plays at that level. Marc [Gasol] has had some great playoff runs. Serge has had some good ones. We are going to need everyone to come up and play their playoff basketball.”
A combination of tighter, aggressive defense, particularly around the rim, coupled with timely shooting from 3-point range (8-13 in the quarter) helped the Thunder turn a 10 point halftime deficit into a 3 point advantage heading into the 4th.
For better or worse, in good times and bad, the Thunder are always going to be Russell Westbrook’s team. And as his focus, energy, and success rises and falls en toto, so does the team’s. Westbrook reverted to poor shooting (6-20, 2-9 from three) but was everywhere else, tallying a triple-double and working overtime to get his teammates lots of touches in the 2nd half. Sometimes for Russ, it’s pure volume. The more times he can put the ball in his teammates’ hands, the more likely they are to convert.
One particular recipient? Steven Adams. While Adams’ box score won’t wow you (9 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist), the fact that he was finally involved in the offense late, setting screens, rolling to the middle, and then flinging the ball around the perimeter, tells you everything you need to know about his and the Thunder’s aggressive and yet functional approach. For the Thunder to be even barely proficient in the halfcourt set, Adams HAS to be a useful part of it. And the fact that he hasn’t consistently been involved has played a major part in the Thunder’s struggles.
In addition to that pair, it was George’s return to shooting form for sure, but also the reemergence of Dennis Schroder’s offense (26 points on 10-16 shooting, 4-7 from three) that was a deciding factor.
To be sure, this model is not particularly sustainable. It can earn big wins like tonight, or game 5 against the Jazz in last year’s playoffs, but over a 7-game series, it has to be more. Let’s hope this was the first step back to where the Thunder need to be as the playoffs loom.
Three – Polarizing: Kawhi Leonard exploded for 20 points in the fourth and finished with a game-high 37 points, but it felt like a hollow effort. Leonard made some very questionable decisions on offence, and many of his misses and turnovers resulted in transition baskets for the Thunder. He also only finished with four assists despite taking 23 shots and committing eight turnovers. Leonard is great as an individual scorer, but he’s also somewhat predictable in how he attacks, and the Thunder were smart to throw double teams his way.
Four – Brilliant: Pascal Siakam was the best player on the floor in the first half but he was conspicuously absent down the stretch. Part of it was on Nick Nurse for leaving him on the bench for the first six minutes of the fourth as OKC raced out to a double-digit advantage, but Siakam also just doesn’t attack with the same ferocity as he would earlier in games. It’s not to say that he tightens up, but Siakam defers to Leonard to finish games more than he would to start.
“It just doesn’t seem to have much relevance to our team and the situation that our organization is in,” Nurse said before the Raptors faced the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night. “Yeah, we want a decent seed but can’t get caught up in it. I think somebody (the Golden State Warriors) won it last year not being a No. 1 seed, but I’m not sure.”
The Raptors finish the regular season with what looks like an easy stretch. Only one remaining opponent, Brooklyn, had a winning record going into games of Friday night and only the Nets and Miami Heat occupied post-season spots. Charlotte, which Toronto plays twice before the April 9 finish of the schedule, and Orlando, a one-time opponent, harbour faint playoff aspirations but they could be dashed by the time the games roll around. The rest of the schedule is made up of going-nowhere opponents like Chicago (twice), the New York Knicks and Minnesota.
That can present difficulties, too. Those teams are likely to be playing out the string using young and relatively unknown players who Nurse, his staff and his players won’t be too familiar with.
“I think we’re always chasing a win once the ball goes up,” Nurse said. “I think it’s just more managing the result at the end of it, to be honest. Just trying to play the guys we’ve got, move some pieces around, take a look at some things, keep polishing what we’re working on, and play good, solid basketball.”
The Toronto Raptors starting power forward received the February NBA Cares Community Assist Award on Friday “in recognition of his efforts to empower and inspire youth in both local and global communities.” The league selects one player each month “who best reflects the passion that the league and its players share for giving back to their communities.” The native of Cameroon is posting career highs in most categories and is a leading contender for the NBA’s most improved player award, which no Raptor has ever won while with the club.
A tireless worker on his game, Siakam also strives to give back.
He visits schools across the country and is an ambassador for Right To Play, an organization which will receive $10,000 thanks to this Siakam honour.
He also is a representative for the Sun Life Dunk for Diabetes program.
“I am excited and honoured to receive the Community Assist Award for February. My passion is basketball and I’m so lucky to be able to use this sport to give back to my community,” Siakam said in a release.
“Basketball is bigger than just a game. It’s an opportunity to give back to my new home of Toronto as well as Cameroon.”
Staying hot: Danny Green made five three-pointers in the first half on Friday, eventually finishing with 19 points on 6-for-11 shooting from beyond the arc. It continued a recent trend for the veteran, who had been a scorching 12-for-21 from three in Toronto’s three previous games.
A matter of tolerance: Lowry will eventually not be sore and that’s when he’ll return to the Raptors lineup. “I think we’ve again checked it every way we can check it so there’s nothing really there other than some soreness,” Nurse said. “I think we’re saying next week some time and day to day all in the same sentence. Just whenever that soreness goes away and he feels like he’s ready to go, he’s ready to go.”
History lesson: The Wednesday-Friday home-and-home with Oklahoma City marked the 30th time the Raptors have played consecutive games against the same team in their history. They have swept seven series, been swept nine times and split 14. The last home-and-home they played was against Philadelphia in December, 2017.
5. Jonas Valanciunas
A number of all-time Raptors could have taken this spot. Kawhi Leonard and Tracy McGrady certainly make better cases when it comes to talent. Oakley, Hakeem, and Chauncey Billups all had better careers than Jonas Valanciunas will likely ever have.
JV stands above those guys in a very clear way. All of those better players spent no more than a few years with the Raptors. Valanciunas, on the other hand, was in Toronto for seven years. Homegrown, the Raptors drafted him with their 2011 lottery pick, where he made an almost immediate impact. His first year wasn’t stellar, but in the few years after that, the Lithuanian big man established himself as a constant double-double threat with 11.9 points and 8.4 boards per game in his tenure.
Despite seeing his fair share of ups and downs throughout his time in Toronto, especially as one of the victims of Toronto’s so-called “GoDaddy Curse”, Valanciunas continued to fight to stay relevant. When fans deemed him a bad rim protector, JV worked on his defense. He was accused of not fitting in with the modern NBA because of his inability to shoot like a modern big man. JV responded by shooting three-pointers at a 40% rate. Every single time he was met with a challenge, JV improved his game and moved forward. That determination and perseverance was a big part of who Jonas was as a Raptor, and a big part of what got him on this list.
Paul George said he's spoken to Kawhi about his experience in a similar situation last year (coming to a new team and facing free agency before ultimately deciding to stay in OKC). What advice did he have? "That's between us."
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) March 22, 2019
Raptors head coach Nick Nurse put questions about Leonard’s availability to rest right away – although as he has learned to do this season, he left himself some wiggle room.
“I don’t think so,” he said when asked if Leonard would have any minutes restrictions less than 48 hours later. And then: “We’ll see how it goes.”
From that narrow perspective it went very well.
Playing in his 53rd game, Leonard logged 36 minutes – slightly above his season average – and scored 37 points on 23 shots to lead all scorers. It wasn’t enough as the Raptors dropped a rollercoaster of a game to the desperate Thunder 116-109.
It wasn’t like Leonard was popping with energy early on. He made a couple of uncharacteristic early turnovers – the Raptors made 12 in the first half – and some of his jumpers seemed even flatter than normal. And on his one clear path to the rim against an OKC defence that was geared up to double him, he barely squeezed in a dunk, rather than exploding up and over the rim.
But he got stronger as the game went on. His power move against George for a lay-up that cut what had been a 10-point Thunder lead to four with two minutes left was confident and strong. He hit a late three to cut the lead to five. He scored 20 points while playing all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter.
Throughout the game he went seeking contact and likely should have shot more than 10 free throws. He looked healthy and more than held his own while duelling with George, who finished with 28 points.
Paul George was one of the stars Siakam worked out with in LA last summer, said he's not surprised by Pascal's development. "I noticed how much better he got this summer. I knew it would translate coming into the season."
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) March 22, 2019
urnovers were a major issue all evening for Toronto.
“You look down, we shot 50%, 52% from three, 85% from the line and you think, ‘how are you not winning that game?” asked Raptors head coach Nick Nurse afterward.
“Then you look over at the turnovers, 22 of them, we had eight in the first quarter and still were in good shape but they got some really good production out of, a lot of points out of their secondary guys, other than George and Westbrook.” That was the bad news for Toronto.
The good was that Kawhi Leonard caught fire late, scoring 20 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter — “He’s the ultimate bailout, a guy like that, just give him the ball, he’ll get some buckets … Kept us in the game tonight when things were going a little bit astray,” opined Fred VanVleet.
But it was Siakam’s opening that most intrigued.
If he can trouble a dominant point guard like Westbrook for half of a game, despite being so much bigger and if Leonard can check any forward, the post-season version of Toronto, which features other solid defenders, will not be easy to score against. It’s going to take work, and it probably will wear down opponents who will also have to contend with one of the NBA’s best offences.
Siakam finished with 25, Leonard went off and Danny Green hit six three-pointers on the way to 19 points. It wasn’t enough, with George dropping 28, Westbrook notching a 18 point, 13 assist, 12 rebound triple-double and Dennis Schroder adding 26 points and seven assists off of the bench for a Thunder team that nailed 20 three-pointers tied for the most Toronto has ever surrendered in a game (Brooklyn also hit 20 last month).